Last fall, during the course of my presidential campaign, I was introduced to some individuals who indicated they were Arabian businessmen wishing to make a contribution. The details of their offer seemed to me to be in violation of campaign laws. Thinking they were sincere but extremely naive businessmen who wished to become politically involved, I informed them to the potential illegality and offered to send them some information regarding election rules.
I soon forgot about this incident and was amazed to find out last month that the "businessmen" were in fact undercover FBI agents who had videotaped their contacts with a number of members of Congress.
Given the background of heightened concern with ethics and tough new regulations enacted since Watergate, the extent of the FBI's operation Abscam also came as a shock to the rest of official Washington. Much of the public, however, views the activities as a confirmation of their previous suspicions.
For a number of years, public opinion polls have indicated that Americans have ranked the Congress near the bottom of the list in terms of integrity. An illustration of this general low esteem was the favorable media attention I received when it was disclosed that I had rejected offers by Abscam agents. Although I'm certainly not objecting personally, I was billed in many news stories as an "oddity, an honest senator."
A couple of quotes from the many letters I received from around the country represent the flavor of the public's comments. One person wrote, "Isn't it sad testimony of our times when a man simply does the right thing that he is brought into the limelight and hailed as an unusual being." Another wrote, "Your actions are a welcome change from the way most politicians do business; it's refreshing to find an honest politician, although that phrase is almost a paradox."
The fact is, however, that the overwhelming majority of the men and women in Congress are extremely hardworking and honest. Many sacrifice lucrative careers in the private sector and frequently are deprived of time with their families because of the demands of public affairs. In recent years with the workload ever increasing and public esteem ever decreasing, a number of those dedicated officials have decided not to seek re-election. The loss of these experienced people will be felt by the nation.
This being said, though, the public is entitled to see quick action taken against wrongdoers. Members of Congress must not be allowed to get away with bribery. Already evidence is being presented to grand juries by law enforcement authorities.
The public also rightfully demands that Congress take measures to police itself. The Constitution gives Congress alone the power to expel members. The present criminal investigation by the Department of Justice, however, places congressional ethics committees in a difficult position. Unless they wish to jeopardize the evidence gathered against congressmen by the law enforcement authorities in the executive branch, the committees must wait to receive this material until after possible grand jury action or trials have been completed. This could take six months to a year.
the present situation is further muddled by the emergence of several separate but not unrelated difficult issues.
Because the techniques employed are similar to those used against hoods and petty thieves, it does not mean they are inappropriate to use against congressmen. In previous undercover sting operations, however, agents investigated crimes which had already occurred, rather than creating the circumstances under which they might occur. Several legal experts have suggested that the latter technique may be in violation of constitutional guarantees, thus possible barring criminal convictions.
The politicians involved in the sting have not yet been indicted, let alone tried. Like other citizens they are to be presumed innocent until proven otherwise. It should be noted that elected officials suffer greater damage to their careers than other individuals, by mere "implication" in illegal activities, even should they be acquitted. This leads to the next point.
The wholesale leaks from the government are unprecedented. Evidence gathered during criminal investigations is normally closely guarded and not disclosed before trial. In this present situation, great detail was somehow released before grand jury action and received wide media attention. Inquiry should be made as to how this came about and why.
After the facts of the present investigation have been sifted, Congress must renew its determination to set its "houses" in order.
whether or not criminal convictions result, Congress has the power to discipline its members and to revise the criminal statutes. Examples of penalties for wrongdoing imposed in other democracies should be studied for possible application in our country. Japan for example, requires the automatic loss of membership for a member of the Diet convicted of certain offenses. The Netherlands provides that penalties for offenses be increased by one-third if committed by membbers of Parliament.
As a first step, I intend to offer legislation which contains a similar sanction of increased penalties and also mandatory minimum sentencing provisions for members of Congress convicted of wrongdoing. I would hope that such legislation will serve as a focal point for further congressional consideration of changes in the criminal code.
We here in Congress must be ever vigilant over our own.This is owed to the overwhelming number of hardworking and honest members of Congress as well as to the public at large.